Odd threads


Image from “Yarn and cloth making; an economic study; a college and normal schools text preliminary to fabric study, and a reference for teachers of industrial history and art in secondary and elementary schools” (1918)

At Digital Pedagogy Institute 2017, Kate Bowles shared with the Intercultural Collaboration group the language of warp and weft as metaphor for the relationship between structure and agency. A colorful woven scarf gifted to her from Maha Bali, track co-creator, surely helped prompt this metaphor.

Prone to invoking knitting metaphors myself–this blog is titled where warp meets weft for a reason–Kate’s reflections on warp and weft, and in particular the idea that it’s the very tension between them that makes the material object possible and particular, just captured me last summer. Kate was helping us make sense of the relationship between structure and agency in a vocabulary that spoke to my identity as a media scholar, and in imagery that spoke to my larger identity as a maker of meaning. Reading these final lines in her blog post published today helped restore within me some of the hope and possibility that I felt last summer at DPI:

Writing is the gift we give to ourselves. It’s the soul work of our agency, our refusal, and our choice.

It’s that important.

–Kate Bowles, Writing to the dark

I took up knitting when my kids were tiny. I needed a creative practice that was easy to carry along with me to wherever they were playing.  Although my beloved potters’ wheel had kept me connected and grounded for years, it lives in the basement at a far remove from where the kids played and rested, too far out of eyesight. I could carry my bag of knitting with me to swim practices, karate lessons, the park.  And in those first years, most of the objects I knit were gifts for others, mostly my children. A poncho and alpaca leg warmers for my daughter, a variegated vest for my son. Their interest in these hand-knit garments waned as they grew, and except for a baby blanket for a friend or mittens for my aunt, I feel about my knitting the same way Kate feels about writing:

It’s a gift we give to ourselves.

But time to write, like time for knitting, has to be cultivated and sheltered. And blog posts started but not finished gather like my yarn stash. Well-intentioned projects I mean to pick up when there’s time. And there never seems to be enough time to make meaningful progress, so I rarely pick them up.

No one observes my digital presence with as much dedication and care as my father.  A typo in a bio. A c.v. in need of updates.  A hard to find article. Aware of what a demanding year it has been in my work, my father has only very delicately hinted at these languishing tasks.  He recently returned to my website and took note of its new banner image–the one update I managed this year that I feel really delighted by. where warp meets weft

Dad: “I’m trying to read it. What does it say? I can’t tell. It’s not very clear.”

Me: *shrugs*

Dad: “It really just kind of unravels.”


Me:  “Dad, you’re right. It really does just kind of unravel.”

We laughed a bit at that. He still thinks it’s hard to read but more importantly I think he recognized he’d helped me grasp at something I was struggling with, something more important.  And instead of feeling impatient with his gentle reminder that my website was much in need of attention,  I mused that his comment would be a great title for a future blog post.

A blog post that never developed beyond a few sentences in a draft, but an idea that continued to stay with me and present in my thoughts.

Present in a conversation with Sean Michael Morris, who kindly suggested to me that “we are all always in a process of unraveling and re-raveling.”

Present in a conversation with Jenna Azar who knows more than anyone that metaphors help me think through complexity, who patiently helped me find some meaning in wondering about the way a particular bundle of yarn you thought was meant for a scarf actually is better suited for a sweater. And so you just unravel and begin over.  You let go of your image of a lovely scarf and turn instead to the shape of the thing the yarn really wants you to make of it. And what any of that has to do with work and teaching and learning and institutions anyhow.

And what happens when the work you care about and love is to create possibilities for becoming more closely knit together but before that can happen everything must first unravel?

Lessons in embracing not-yetness.

ball of yarn

Kate writes that she was startled out of her writing slump by a keynote given by Robin DeRosa last week at St. Norbert. Robin’s keynote (which is terrific!) included a reference to one of Kate’s old blog posts. In sharing her blog post today on Twitter, Kate describes it “a thank you note” to Robin…and to me.  I don’t know why I am gathered into that caring tweet alongside Robin. Nothing that I did last week holds a candle to what Robin accomplished in that timeframe, which includes the keynote mentioned above and another talk at SUNY’s Conference on Instruction and Technology, with a whole lot of airport marvels in between.

But I do know that in her caring “thank you,” Kate has startled me out of my own writing slump, reminded me of “the soul work” of my agency.

And so my own post here is a bit of a “thank you” as well, to Kate, to Robin, to Bonnie Stewart, and to others who are writing to the dark, writing about what is difficult, what unsettles them, about our work, our lives and our students’ lives, in higher education right now.

Practices Beyond Predictions



“There’s still a lot to do, to have commitment rule education and not consumerism.” — Maxine Greene

The new year’s predictions for higher ed are out in the last week.  It’s not surprising that many of the predictions hover around technology.

I want to offer a response to a theme that recurs across many of these new years forecasts, about 2018 being the year that small colleges make a big splash in online learning.  I have no qualifications as an influencer, futurist, or fortune teller.

My response to predictions of online learning in small colleges is rooted in practice, not prediction.

Towards the end of 2017, I had the privilege of joining an ongoing open conversation on digital learning and the liberal arts at the University of Mary Washington.  This post draws directly from my presentation, “Getting proximate, going for broke: On digital learning, education, and social justice” (which is online here).  In the last stretch of the talk, I sought to bring education and social justice directly into conversation with online learning in the liberal arts.  Some of this I tweeted in the days before the talk as I prepared, steeped in the early writings of Maxine Greene (who remarkably did actually predict, in the late 60s, where we would be today with edtech). Some of this I’ve shared since.  But it seems timely now, in response to the predictions, a call to action from the work in online learning Muhlenberg.

What should we say about online learning and social justice, if we speak from commitment not consumerism?

How do we move towards an interpretation of online learning that gets proximate to the issues of inequality and injustice we need to support?

The first social justice issue is this: online learning may open the door to an unprecedented scale of commodification in higher education. This is already underway and what troubles me most is the degree to which this path appears inevitable. We need to think strategically about how together we can challenge the epistemology of efficiencies and scale that dominates the Silicon Valley inspired dreams of online learning.

We must find openings and alternatives, gathering inspiration from Maxine Greene and others to attempt to look at things as if they could be otherwise. To engage our campus leaders in looking at things as if they could be otherwise. To engage our students in looking at things as if they must be otherwise.

We cannot do this independently. As Vinny Mosco writes in his recently published book, Becoming Digital, “to rescue genuine information and communication from the black hole of commercialism requires strong intervention.”

We need to imagine collaborative models and communities of practice that cross institutional, disciplinary boundaries, so that we can work together to limit commercialism in the digital liberal arts, which is also to advocate for limiting surveillance and extraction of student data in digital learning.

We need a vision of online learning that supports democracy, equity, participation, access, well-being, over one that privileges commodification, surveillance, and consumerism.

We need a vision of online learning that values education as the practice of voice and freedom.

We need a vision of online learning rooted in our liberal arts ethos but that also extends outwards towards those for whom a liberal arts education in a small residential environment is not within reach.

We need a vision of online learning that recognizes all students as fully human, as digital citizens, and treats all students equitably, over one that conceptualizes students something even less than consumers, as data points.

We need a vision of online learning that engages pedagogies that practice the value of voice, over one that denies student voice matters.

We need, in short, a cooperative alternative to the dominant political and economic entities organizing rapidly around the production and provision of online learning.

We need to get organized around activist digital learning that aims to expand the range and possibility of digital resources available to educators and learners.

We have models for doing this in multiple areas of digital learning.  Domain of One’s Own, movements around open education, emerging alternatives to concentrated ownership and control of academic publishing.  To my colleagues in the field of media and social justice, I would say that online learning should be recognized as a leading edge of media activism in 2018.

How might we generate with all of this collective spirit an approach to online learning critically and consciously informed by a social justice orientation?

Let’s take up Maxine Greene’s invitation to educators to “take proactive rather than reactive approaches to technology and keep asking what it is for and how it can serve the needs of humankind.”

My close partner and friend in this work, Jenna Azar, keeps me focusing towards one promising path in this text message sent while traveling by train to Fredericksburg:

“What we can imagine, what is possible individually, doesn’t hold a candle to what we can imagine and grow collectively.”